What is Web Accessibility and Why It Matters for Your Website

When you go to the doctor’s office or a government building, you will find wheelchair ramps at the entrance and Braille on the elevators. When you turn on the TV, you will find an option for closed captioning. These are all steps taken – and often required by law – to ensure people with disabilities have equal access and equal opportunity. Yet, when it comes to the web, accessibility is usually an afterthought or not even considered at all. There are millions of people in the world with disabilities and, as a website owner, it is your responsibility to make sure that everyone has access to your website regardless of disability. This is known as web accessibility.

What is Web Accessibility?

If you don’t have a disability, it is hard to imagine using the web. How do you read blogs if you are visually impaired? How do you browse the web if you are physically impaired and can’t click a mouse? How do you watch a video online if you are hearing impaired?

People with disabilities utilize a wide range of tools to help them access the web, such as screen readers, Braille keyboards, and voice commands. When a website is accessible, then it can be used as effectively by a person with a disability as a person without a disability. As Jim Thatcher points out here, this doesn’t mean that it will take the person with a disability the same amount of time to complete a task, but the process must be comparable.

Don’t let the term “accessible” confuse you. Web accessibility is not just about allowing people with disabilities access to your website in the same way a ramp allows wheelchair access to a building. Web accessibility means that people with disabilities can use your website in a meaningful way. For example, part of web accessibility involves putting ALT text on images so they can be read by people with visual impairments using screen readers. If your website is accessible, then those ALT texts will actually make sense to people who can’t see the image.

How Do People with Disabilities Use the Web?

An important part of making your website accessible is understanding how people with disabilities use the web. At the W3 Web Accessibility Initiative, you can find an overview of How People with Disabilities Use the Web including real stories from people, examples of tools they use, and some of the limitations they face with accessibility. Computer World also has a good article with examples of devices people use to access the web. Here is an overview:

Visually Impaired Web Users:

According to WHO, 285 million people in the world are visually impaired. Of these, 39 million are blind and 246 million have low vision. Visually impaired people can access the web with tools like screen readers and using keyboard-only navigation. People with moderate visual impairment (such as is common in elderly people) may rely on screen enlargement and require websites with good color contrast and well-labeled graphics.
Someone using a braille display device

Physically Impaired Web Users:

Depending on the type of physical (motor) disability, the person may use only a mouse, only a keyword, or only voice commands to use the web. There are also many different devices, like mouth sticks, eye sensors, and light-operated mouse systems. If your website can only be used with one type of command, then these physically impaired users may have accessibility issues.

Hearing Impaired Web Users:

Hearing impairment isn’t an issue for many websites, but it can be if your website contains video or audio content. People with hearing disabilities rely on good volume controls and deaf people rely on transcripts and Closed Captioning for videos and audio content.

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Cognitively Impaired Web Users:

Cognitive disabilities range drastically, such as causing people to have trouble with reading, comprehending, and memory. Many people with cognitive disabilities may rely on text-to-speech software for understanding web content. Complex web designs can cause problems for people with cognitive disabilities when accessing the web.

Web Accessibility Standards

When talking about web accessibility standards, you will hear two terms: WCAG and Section 508.


WCAG stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. The guidelines were established by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). WCAG are the international standards to ensuring that websites and user agents (such as mobile phones and other devices) are accessible by people with disabilities. There are three levels of WCAG (A, AA, and AAA). The AAA level is the highest standard. The 4 main principles of WCAG are that content must be:
  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

Section 508

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prevents discrimination on the basis of disability by federal agencies and agencies receiving federal money. In 1998, the Act was amended to include Section 508, which extends the law to electronic and information technology. Under Section 508, agencies must give people with disabilities access in a way which comparable to the access of others.

Many aspects of Section 508 and WCAG are the same. However, they are very different things. Section 508 is a legal requirement and WCAG is a set of guidelines. In general, WCAG guidelines are represent a higher level of accessibility than the Section 508 standards.

Steps for Improving Web Accessibility

Web accessibility is something which should be considered from a developer and a design standpoint. We advise that you look through the resources at the bottom of this page to learn more about web accessibility standards, legal regulations, and principles.

Some very basic things you can do now to improve web accessibility (and user experience) are:
  • Correct Spelling Mistakes: These cause problems for screen readers
  • Use ALT text: This is also very important for SEO
  • Include Transcripts for Video: This is also important for hearing impaired users as well as a quality and SEO issue
Currently, you can check for both spelling errors and missing ALT text with the Monsido Webmaster and SEO Tool. The tool will scan your website on a weekly or on-demand basis to determine if there are any errors, and send a report to your inbox.
Monsido also has the ability to scan your website and check for WCAG A, AA, and AAA standards, and Section 508 Compliance.
Please note that, while tools may help you find accessibility errors and may even be able to automatically fix them, web accessibility is still something which needs to be evaluated on a human basis. For example, software can determine if you are missing ALT text, but software cannot determine if the ALT text is written in a way which makes sense to users.
Further Resources for Web Accessibility:
Image credit: “Braille Terminal / Display” (CC BY-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0)) by Karola Riegler Photography